Where When How — March/April 2017
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Our Feathered Friends The Cormorant
Kim Mortimer

So you might happen to be a bird-watcher and therefore have an intrinsic understanding of the value they have to our environment and lives. However, not everyone is a bird enthusiast, so it is important that we work on nurturing an ethical obligation to conserve our birds. If you’re reading this, chances are that you already do. Through awareness and education, we can help maintain healthy bird populations that are essential to human welfare. Sadly, it is thought that over the next century an estimated 1200 species of bird face extinction.

So what role can birds play for humans? Throughout history there are endless examples of birds saving farmers crops from being destroyed through the role of pest controller; eating insects that otherwise would have devoured their harvest. They are one of the main transporters of seeds for trees and plants around the world. They also play a big role in pollinating many fruit bearing trees and plants. Bird excrement itself can be a commodity with a dollar value. Seabird guano, for example, has played a major role in some communities being used as fertiliser in business. Birds are often a significant attraction for people, which tourists are willing to spend money to see.

Pigeons have been used for ferrying messages between people, famously so during times of war. Canaries were once taken into coal mines, as they were particularly sensitive to toxic gases like carbon monoxide. Thus, they were an early warning for miners to evacuate if the deadly gas built up in the shafts. Even today certain birds are being trained for search and rescue missions and also as alarm systems. Parrots can be trained to speak select chosen words when an intruder is approaching. There is also even a bird in Kenya that works with the tribe’s people guiding them to honey that’s found in trees. Once the tribe’s people have collected the honey, the bird receives a finder’s fee for their work as well.

Another bird that helps retrieve food fo humans is the cormorant. The cormorant has been a fisherman’s friend for over a millennium in countries like Japan and China. They are trained to dive and catch fish, and bring them back to the fisherman. Some cormorants will be fitted with wire collars on their necks to keep them from gulping down their catch. Others are trained not to swallow the fish and go without the collar. While cormorant fishing was a traditional fishing method that had been a successful industry, today its primary use is to serve the tourism industry. Although to see cormorants, one need not go as far as Japan or China. Indeed two species of cormorants, the Double-crested Cormorant and the Neotropic Cormorant, are recorded to inhabit the West Indies. That said in all my thirteen years of bird watching in the Turks and Caicos Islands, cormorants have never been a common find. I have actually only observed cormorants at one single location and that is on West Caicos.

Currently, cormorants and shags belong together in what’s known as the Phalacrocoracidae family, which consists of about 40 species. With no consistent distinction between “cormorants” and “shags”, it could be considered a matter of local name preference. Cormorants are medium-to-large seabirds and are found around the world except in the central Pacific islands. The majority of the species have dark plumage, although some species are black and white, while others have patches on their face of bright coloured skin ranging from blue, red, orange or yellow. This coloured skin becomes brighter in the breeding season.

While cormorants are coastal birds rather than oceanic birds, they are all still fish-eaters. Dining on small fish, eels and even small snakes, they catch their prey by diving from the surface. They are excellent divers with webbing between their toes to help propel them forward underwater. They also use their wings in relation to their feet to help power themselves forward in their diving, in fact some cormorants have been found to dive as deep as 45 metres.

Cormorants often stand with a spread-wing posture in the sun, commonly referred to as “sunbathing” or “wing-drying”. Initially it was believed that cormorants had less preen oil than other birds. This would make their feathers not water repellent like a duck’s, but wet instead, warranting such a posture to help their wings dry. However, it is now understood that while this posture is taken to dry their wings, it is because their feathers are structured to decrease buoyancy, instead aiding in their underwater pursuit of fishes.

I would have considered a cormorant sighting on the islands to have been something special on its own. However I was even more fortunate to observe a large flock roosting at one of my favourite spots in the country, the stone causeway at Lake Catherine on West Caicos. Knowing how unusual this sighting was, I have since observed them with a keen interest to learn more about their habitation there. While happy to have observed them on more than one occasion, I know they are not permanent residences on West Caicos, as I have been to the causeway recently and found them nowhere to be seen. I will continue to watch this migratory bird even more closely now, and enjoy noting if it continues to return to the beautiful causeway on Lake Catherine.